Folio — From the January 2015 issue

Love Crimes

What liberation looks like for Afghan women

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Gul Raham, the hymen doctor of Kabul, sat behind a wide desk in an office filled with purple plastic flowers. A bouquet of them drooped over a filing cabinet stuffed with virginity certificates. Two female gynecologists sat quietly on folding chairs. Raham wiped the condensation from his small glasses. “I am a man of science,” he said.

I asked Raham to explain his procedure for determining virginity.

“The hymen is a small curtain,” he began. “There’s a very small hole that allows liquid to come through, like the woman’s period. Sometimes we have a blocked hymen. No hole. We poke a hole in the woman if the fluid needs to come out. It’s very tiny and difficult to reconstruct.”

A woman in Kabul walks up a hill that is covered in homes built since the American invasion, in 2001, when Afghans from outlying provinces began moving to the capital. Page borders: The frosted window of a women’s shelter in Kabul. All photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU

A woman in Kabul walks up a hill that is covered in homes built since the American invasion, in 2001, when Afghans from outlying provinces began moving to the capital. All photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU

Most visits to the forensic center where Raham works involve questions of rape. Women raped by one or several men, or women whose families suspect that their daughters have been raped at domestic-violence shelters. If a man refuses a woman’s hand in marriage, she might accuse him of rape. Or, if a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable. It’s a moral crime, according to the country’s customary codes. If you’re not in a shelter, you might be put in jail. By marrying your rapist, you can avoid jail time. In all cases the hymen must be checked. Sometimes suspicious husbands bring their wives in. “But if her hymen is okay,” Raham said, “then he will have shamed his wife, and the husband might go to jail.”

*Some names have been changed.

I was with a twenty-eight-year-old interpreter named Ahmer.* A twist of black hair stuck straight up from his head in the manner of a quail’s forward plume. He turned it nervously with his fingers. It’s rare for men in Afghanistan to talk openly about sex, and rarer still to do so in front of women. (My first interpreter had pretended he didn’t know about hymens and walked away.)

About a month earlier, Ahmer had visited the forensic center and encountered a shamed husband. “He accused his wife of adultery, but the hymen was fine,” he said. “All the workers were taunting him, telling him how he just couldn’t fuck his wife well enough.”

When a woman arrives, the doctors examine her arms and legs first, then move on to the external genitals. Then they go deeper, inside.

“If the doctor is not a professional,” Raham said, “even he can break the hymen by checking for the hymen. In all cases, we have to find out if the hymen has been recently or previously destroyed.”

I asked about the worst-case scenario. It was a young girl, he said, whose vaginal wall tore open during a rape. “Her feces — everything — came out,” one of the female doctors said. “Nonstop.”

“What about sodomy?”

“Yes, then we check assholes,” Raham said. “If it was fine and not used, or itching takes place, or there’s a reddish color on the side.”

Ahmer would not look at me. He covered his face.

“If the hymen is torn, we will take note about the condition under which the virginity was destroyed,” Raham said. “Then give the girl a certificate. Then, stamp and sign.” He gave me some examples of virginity-destroying conditions. Jumping off or falling out of a tree, he said. Raham pointed to the filing cabinet, which contained evidence of all the virgins that had passed through.

I asked about the effects of tampons, but Ahmer didn’t know the word. After a minute of confusion Raham said, “Oh, condoms, you mean? Condoms cause cancer.”

Occasionally, the forensic center did torture checkups. Raham showed me a report stapled to a photo of a ragged man. “Light torture,” he said.

One of the gynecologists asked if I’d like a tour of the building. She showed me the green-lit examination room, with its trays of glinting tools, and then led me to the morgue. “It’s for mutilated women,” she said, “and the unidentified men.”

The morgue was in the basement. We wrapped scarves over our noses and put booties on our feet. The mortician said he was proud of his job; he wanted me to take his photo by the freezer. It had room for nine bodies. He hit the freezer latch and the door opened. A body popped out, quick as a cashier’s tray. It was a drug addict in his thirties. “Ditch body,” the gynecologist said. No mutilated women had come in that day. The mortician raised a finger to indicate that I should wait. He combed the dead man’s beard. He made it nice. Then he nodded. “Ready.”

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